As Obama phrased it, the Republican goal of bringing the federal government's multi-trillion-dollar deficit into line with economic realities "is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America." The New York Times throws the states into this dark gumbo and seconds Obama's motion in a subheadline: "From Congress to statehouses, a sweeping attempt to dismantle the social compact."
Any dirty, double-dealing plot to tear up a contract obviously deserves scrutiny. We can start by asking: What social compact? What on God's green earth are these high-minded folk talking about?
The Times makes a stab at explaining in an editorial that blames Republicans for initiating "a project to dismantle the foundations of the New Deal and the Great Society, and to liberate business and the rich from the inconveniences of oversight and taxes." The House's duly enacted budget for fiscal 2012, for instance, "would end the guarantee provided by Medicare and Medicaid to the elderly and the poor." Then the worthless scum would cut food stamps! They'd cut Pell grants for students! And the states -- yes, those varlets! All these governors seem to want any more is to destroy unions!
It would be an odd way to fulfill a "social compact," assuming we had one. Which we don't, never did, and couldn't possibly under a system of democratic governance.
What is a compact? A compact is a formal deal binding parties agreeable to its terms and obligations. Medicare a compact? Social Security a compact? Only in the feverish terms of a president contending for his political life and an editorial page staff scared stiff lest he lose it next year.
No legislative body is capable of executing a "social compact," inasmuch as constituencies, public needs and government capacities change like spring weather. Nor, constitutionally, can one legislature bind the next one or any other one after that to fulfillment of terms it never signed off on. The idea that Congress set up Medicare as a "compact" is stuff and nonsense. It lacked the authority.
What Congress did do is set up Medicare and Social Security to make the transfer of money possible from workers to retirees.
Worker A would fork over, say, his Social Security taxes. The funds would go off to Retiree B -- with an implied promise to A that when he, too, quit working, he could count on Worker C (then memorizing his fourth-grade multiplication tables) to fund him.